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UNESCO water report promotes privatisation narrative

Written By Krishna on Monday, June 18, 2012 | 11:01 AM


The dangers of India's water policy

June 18, 2012 20:28 IST

A global water report promotes privatisation narrative which could be disastrous for India and the world, says Gopal Krishna.

Ahead of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development being held in June 20-22 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation published a 909-page report titled 'United Nations World Water Development Report 4: Managing Water under Uncertainty and Risk. It is envisaged as a conference at the highest possible level, including heads of state and government or other representatives. It will result in a focused global political document

Citing a World Bank document of 2009, this three volume report says: "The National Ganga River Basin Authority in India, with the financial support of the World Bank, launched a programme in 2009 to clean the Ganges, to ensure that 'no untreated municipal sewage or industrial effluents would be discharged into the river by 2020'. Previous action plans did not improve the health of the river, in which almost 95 percent of the pollution is caused by sewers and open drains (World Bank, 2011b). This time the governmental approach has moved from a town centric approach to a broader river basin approach..."

The report's treatment of Ganga Basin, the largest river basin of the country which has catchment in 11 States leaves a lot to be desired. The report fails to enlist any achievement of the authority that was set up in February 2009. It does not scrutinise whether or not the promised 'broader river basin approach' has indeed been adopted. It does not dwell on the split personality of the bank either.

The bank has been undertaking contradictory projects in the Ganga basin without any sense of accountability. It depletes water quality of Ganga by supporting dams upstream and it provides loans for improvement of water quality in its downstream. The second volume of Environmental and Social Management Framework for Bank assisted National Ganga River Basin Project document says, "The Ganga basin (which also extends into parts of Nepal, China and Bangladesh) accounts for about 26 percent of India's landmass, 30 percent of its water resources, and more than 40 percent of its population."

If the bank knew that Ganga basin is an international river basin, how did it choose to refer to it as 'national'? The UNESCO's report like the bank fails to comprehend that both Ganga and Mekong are trans-boundary rivers of the Himalayan watershed.

The UNESCO report states that approximately 1.2 billion people, over half of whom live in India, defecate in the open. This has been snobbishly articulated a billion times. The report's colossal failure lies in not documenting and comparing the water footprint of those who defecate in open and those who defecate within their own houses. It shows that the authors are offering platitudes and prejudiced observations and hiding the sins of those who defecate in closed spaces. This dereliction happened perhaps due to class affinity.

The release of the UNESCO report a few months prior to the Rio+20 Earth Summit could indeed have provided a sound basis for discussions on the future of our planet and water's centrality in it, had it not caved in under the influence of international, financial institutions, entities like the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and the World Resources Institute, their The Access Initiative and Coca Cola. It has provided quite an unsound basis to comprehend and initiate steps to protect the ecological space of water. Most importantly, it has failed in ambition.

If one compares the 522 page report of the Western Ghats ecology expert panel of the Union environment & forests ministry for south and western India, one will find the poverty of ecological imagination of authors of the UNESCO's report. The Indian panel advocates a graded or layered approach, with regulatory as well as promotional measures appropriately fine-tuned to local ecological and social contexts within the broad framework by fine-tuning through a participatory process going down to gram sabhas. Now that Ganga River Basin Authority and Mekong River Commission has proven itself to be too weak to act to safeguard the ecological integrity of river basins, the report of the Western Ghats panel creates a compelling logic for a high-powered panel both at national and international level to adopt a similar approach in dealing with ecological and natural resources in order to set matters right in the global eco system outside the 'piped and bottled water framework'.

UNESCO's report refers to India's National Water Mission as a part of the National Action Plan on Climate Change (2008) which is identifying several strategies to tackle climate change and achieve water-related goals. "The main goals are to create a comprehensive water database and proper public awareness and education campaigns, shift focus on overexploited areas, increase water use efficiency by 20 percent and promote IWRM (Integrated Water Resource Management) on a basin level…," observes the report. Such uncritical reproduction of official documents like the mission document ignores the parochial approach of the authors of the report. They have failed to comprehend the stark democracy deficit in the process of creating it.

Citing a Planning Commission document of 2002, it says, "Water supply is a state responsibility, but various ministries share responsibility at central and state levels… Local governments are increasingly turning operating and maintenance responsibilities to private companies." The report is attempting to build a case for privatisation of water by selectively citing bank-influenced documents of the Planning Commission. It fails to record the failure of private water companies who are engaged in direct water trade through pipes and bottles, in tankers and vessels, and indirectly or 'virtually' through products.

Not surprisingly, the authors of UNESCO report are quite impressed with a study titled The Coca-Cola Company and The Nature Conservancy that was done by researchers at the Twente University in the Netherlands in collaboration with Coca-Cola Enterprises Inc and Coca-Cola Europe on the water footprint of a PET bottle of Coca-Cola. It found that the operational water footprint, equates to only about 1 percent of the total water footprint. The supply chain overhead water footprint was calculated and found to be negligible. There could not have been any negative inference of this research. Will companies collaborate in studies which bring negative results and publicity for them? But authors of UNESCO report chose to overlook this manifest conflict of interest ridden study.

If UNESCO's report is looked at in the context of India's Draft National Water Policy of 2012 and the Planning Commission's Draft National Water Framework Act, it becomes clear that both fail to undo the onslaught on the public water across the country by the foreign, national water companies and advocate corporatization and private sector participation.

The UNESCO'report is indulgent towards maintaining status quo. It meekly states, "In regions where there are large discrepancies between where the water is and where it is needed, the construction of large inter-basin transfer projects is likely to continue – despite the recognized advantages of moving the products of water rather than the water itself." It does not question the desirability of "water re-allocation" through "agriculture-to-urban water transfers." The draft policy quite like the 2002 version recommends diversion of rivers for interlinking by referring to inter-basin transfer of water although Government of India's National Commission for Integrated Water Resources Development Plan had recommended against it in 1999.

The UNESCO report provides case studies to argue for water banking for surface water and groundwater and water markets and continuous public sector involvement so that "The public intermediary buys water from the willing sellers and then sells it to buyers. With this system, water managers are confident they can find the water they need at a predictable price."

The reflection of this state of mind is visible even in Draft National Water Policy of 2012. The draft policy recommends "The "Service Provider" role of the state should be gradually shifted to that of a regulator of services and facilitator for strengthening the institutions responsible for planning, implementation and management of water resources. The water related services should be transferred to community and / or private sector with appropriate "Public Private Partnership" model."

The meeting dissected the reply of the Union Water Resources Minister, Pawan Kumar Bansal given to the Parliament on May 7, 2012. Bansal said, "In the new proposed water policy, we have taken care to emphasize that the State should be encouraged to go in for public private partnership… public private partnership does not mean that you are privatizing the water sector. We are not privatising the water sector." He added that there are many good projects where "the public private partnership model has been found attractive enough by different cities in the country to adopt that."

Bansal mentioned the names of cities like Tirpur, Salt Lake Kolkata, Chennai, Nagpur, Hyderabad, Hubli, Dharwar, Belgaum, Gulbarga, Lattur, Mysore, Haldia, Dewas, Khandwa, Shivpuri, Raipur, Kolhapur, etc. He argued that at "So many places for one purpose or the other public private partnership model has been utilised, and it would be the policy of the Government to encourage that." On May 10-11, at the national meeting of citizens' groups Bansal's reply in the Parliament was analyzed and there was unanimity among the participants that he was misrepresenting facts and misleading the house with impunity. The cities which mentioned by the minister are cases of failed PPP projects. Votaries of privatisation argue that they are not privatizing water, but only involving private parties in managing it. The fact is no private operator undertakes a project unless it is assured of its raw material i.e. water.

The fact is that the basic premise of PPP stands exposed despite this the JNUNURM model for signing PPP is being adopted in several cities. It has been extended from 63 cities to 5, 000 cities. The water related services are being transferred to a PPP mode, any venture in which the private sector is involved in a manner that it exercises control on some or all parts of the water supply system, from production, transmission, treatment to delivery. There are several PPP projects where more than 90 per cent of the capital expenditure of $28.8 million comes from public resources. City's water supplies are being handed over to private companies for 25 years. These agreement include a restriction that no parallel competing facility will be allowed.

Arati Tiwari, corporator, Gulbarga shared the elaborate case study at the national meeting about how Karnataka Government's plan to extend the 24x7 water supply scheme from a few select wards to entire city corporations of Hubli-Dharwad, Belgaum and Gulbarga has caused massive monetary increase in the rate of water supply. None of the 55 corporators of Gulbarga City Council have given their consent still the plan is unfolding. She narrated how her family has to foot a bill of Rs 3500/month as water charge. She argued that democracy has become a government off the people, to buy the people and forget the people. The fact is that PPP arrangement is privatisation. In some states it was noted how the promise of 24 X 7 water supply turned out to be a 6-hour water supply even this is not mandatory.

A dissenting report annexed to the report of the Planning Commission's Working Group on Urban and Industrial Water Supply and Sanitation expressed disappointment with the fact that Water as Fundamental Human Right has not been articulated strongly enough. Quite like the UNESCO report, Working Group's report too has missed out on highlighting many serious problems of privatisation and PPPs and their serious implications. In such a situation, the recommendations in these reports appear quite weak.

A situation is emerging where instead of providing assured safe drinking water as matter of right, right to purchase bottled water is being pushed. Despite this both national efforts and UN reports do not suggest anything to reverse the trend to save the ecosystem and its fluid for the present and future generations. Wedded to market socialism, China may have forgotten the lessons of free trade in opium, India and Indians cannot afford to allow free trade in water although their government is unconstitutionally declaring the country to be a market democracy.
Gopal Krishna

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